A pod designed by Hyperloop One was successfully tested in the Nevada desert (12 May 2017)

 

The Hyperloop Project accelerates

 

Hyperloop, one of Elon Musk’s many projects, is a new transport system that aims to carry passengers and freight in small tubes at 1,200 kilometers per hour. The tubes, or pods, are less energy-intensive than airplanes or trains, due to the low pressure maintained inside them. Musk calls the concept “the fifth mode of transportation” which could totally revolutionize ground transportation.
High-speed trains in a vacuum is a concept over a century old. Robert Goddard, whom many consider the father of modern rocket propulsion, announced in 1909 a system of high-speed, passenger-carrying pods traveling through evacuated tubes.
To move his project along, Musk has organized several competition weekends, inviting innovators and universities from around the world who are interested in high-speed transportation technology. The goal of these weekends is to accelerate development of functional prototypes and encourage innovation. Teams must design and build the best high-speed pod, then test them at the SpaceX Hyperloop system at its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. SpaceX, Musk’s space transport company, has built a one-mile test track here. These competitions are the first of its kind anywhere in the world, and the single criterion for the contests is maximum speed.
The first competition was held in Jan. 2017. The Hyperloop team from Delft University in the Netherlands got the highest overall score. TenCate provided Delft’s team with the epoxy-based carbon-fiber woven and unidirectional prepregs for manufacture of the pod’s monocoque from 
their European Centre of Excellence for thermoset systems in the UK. The TenCate 8020 range was chosen to reduce the pod’s mass and provide a high stiffness-to-weight ratio, which resulted in a strong yet lightweight pod weighing 149 kg. 
Technical University of Munich, Germany won the award for the fastest pod. SGL Group provided the team with carbon-fiber materials as well as expertise, resources and systems from its Lightweight and Application Center (LAC) in Meitingen, Germany. At the LAC, students worked with engineers on developing and producing carbon components for the pod prototypes. The 70-kilogram, all-carbon fiber vehicle is powered by a 50-kilowatt electric motor developed in-house, enabling the pod to accelerate to a top speed of 350 km/h at 1.5 g.
Placing third was a 250-kg pod built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), made with woven carbon fiber and polycarbonate sheets. In addition to the carbon fiber and polycarbonate sheets on the exterior, MIT’s design incorporates magnets, which lift the pod. The magnets maintain a 15-mm levitation gap above the track, and ideally will reach a speed in excess of 100 meters per second.
SpaceX and MIT are no strangers to composites innovation. Recently, SpaceX achieved an historic landing of its Falcon 9 rocket, which makes extensive use of composites, marking the first time a rocket launched a payload into orbit and then returned safely to Earth. MIT researchers have also used CFRP to make an innovative robot cheetah that can run at 10 mph and jump over 33-cm obstacles. 
The second Hyperloop race, held on Aug. 25-27, was won by the Technical University of Munich, runners-up in the initial rally. The TUM pod reached a top speed of 200 mph (321 km/hr).
At the end of the competition, SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, said that there was no reason why future pods in the competition couldn't hit 500 to 600 miles per hour on the 1.25-km track. SpaceX announced the third competition, which will take place in the summer of 2018. All contests are judged by SpaceX engineers.

How it works

The Hyperloop concept was designed by SpaceX and Tesla Motors, another Musk enterprise. It intends to load passengers and cargo into a pod and accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure, near-vacuum tube. Musk announced the project in 2013 as a transit system designed for major cities separated by 900 miles or less (San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example). 
The pod quickly lifts above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances, thanks to extremely low aerodynamic drag. The pods, which will be roughly 100 feet long and 2.7 meters in diameter, will carry between 28 and 40 passengers. SpaceX predicts a flow of 164,000 riders daily. 
Momentum is growing in the Hyperloop movement, with a number of new companies attempting to commercialize it.
Last April, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) announced start of construction of the world’s first full-scale Passenger Hyperloop™ Capsule. HTT, based in California, is one of a handful of startups working on the concept. 
Construction is under way for delivery early next year at HTT’s R&D center, to be built in Toulouse, France. The capsule will be 30 meters (98.5 feet) long, 2.7 meters (9 feet) wide, weigh 20 tons and will be able to take 28-40 passengers at speeds up to 760 mph.
HTT’s passenger capsule is being built in collaboration with Carbures S.A., a technological industrial group that specializes in the manufacturing of composite parts and structures, including fuselages for Airbus and Boeing aircraft.
HTT announced that its capsule will be made with a carbon-fiber composite material, which it is naming “Vibranium” after the fictional material used to protect the comic-book hero, Captain America. Hyperloop collaborated with a Slovakian materials firm, c2i, on the composite, which is a smart material to cover the inside and outside of its capsules. The Slovakian firm is known for its technical skills in new materials, automotive and production processes, and in particular for its experience and expertise in engineering carbon-fiber structures for next-generation cars and aircraft.
Hyperloop says its carbon-fiber composites are eight times stronger than aluminum and 10 times stronger than steel. They are is also five times lighter than steel and 1.5 times lighter than aluminum, which reduces the energy needed to drive the pod. The material would also be embedded with sensors to monitor the capsule’s temperature and stability, to let the company know which pods need repairs early on. HTT says its system is 10 times safer than any airplane.
 

Wabash: the U.S. truck maker leads in composite use

Wabash National is the largest semi-trailer producer in North America, manufacturing more than 60,000 semi-trailers last year. 
The Indiana-based firm recently launched the transportation industry’s first refrigerated trailer made with molded structural composites. Earlier this year, Wabash announced it would begin a limited production run of 100 units over 18 months. 
The trailer is made with the company’s proprietary molded structural composite with thermal technology (MSCT). This is the first time the technology is being used in trailer and truck body manufacturing. Wabash says it improves thermal efficiency by 25 percent and is up to 20 percent lighter. It also reduces fuel costs, increases payload and cargo capacity, optimizes utilization and enhances durability and damage resistance.

Wabash National was established in 1985. The company specializes in design and production of dry freight vans, refrigerated vans, flatbed trailers, drop deck trailers, dump trailers, truck bodies and intermodal equipment. Its DuraPlate composite panel is one of many core products. The DuraPlate Products Group (DPG), was formed in early 2008 as a strategic business unit within Wabash National Corporation, and is responsible for application of DuraPlate Panel technology. DuraPlate composite panels are used in semi-trailer and truck body sidewalls. The panels are made of a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) core bonded between two external, high-strength galvanized steel skins. Combined, they produce a panel that is strong, lightweight and damage-resistant. First fabricated in 1996, DuraPlate’s original application was for semi-trailers because of its strength and durability. Wabash says it is the only composite panel made in the U.S. 

Recyclable and resistant

Water damage, forklift impact and rust can quickly shorten the life of semi-trailer doors and increase maintenance and replacement costs. The DuraPlate door does not absorb moisture, making it rot-resistant, a common problem with wood-based products. The panels are also highly resistant to punctures and dents. DuraPlate will not tear or rip, and does not splinter like plywood or fiberglass-reinforced panels. And unlike aluminum, DuraPlate's steel skins do not wrinkle or pit with exposure to the weather.
DuraPlate's polyethylene core also gives the panels a layer of flexibility. They can absorb a direct impact and still retain their shape over time, even in harsh conditions.
All these qualities make it suited for the rigorous demands of truck body and trailer door applications. 
The DuraPlate panel is 100 percent recyclable, so can be used again and again in other consumer industrial products. Today, DuraPlate is found in a number of transportation applications, including dry van sidewalls, container sidewalls, swing and overhead trailer doors and truck bodies. Wabash reports that it has reduced maintenance costs and related downtime for fleets across North America.
Furthermore, the versatility of DuraPlate has led to innovation and progression into other markets, and replaced standard materials for products, including truck bodies, swing and overhead doors, cargo trailers and portable storage units. 
Wabash currently has an expanding portfolio of composite offerings, which the firm says highlights a growing competency in advanced composites.

 

Rail industry on track for increased composite use

Composite materials could be a key solution for the rail industry as it looks to design and build more efficient trains for tomorrow’s passengers.
A February 2017 report from market-research firm Lucintel shows a promising future for the global rail composites market, with opportunities in both interior and exterior applications on trains. The report by the Texas firm predicts the market for composite applications in the global rail industry will reach an estimated US$821 million by 2021, growing at an annual rate of 3.6 percent. Europe is expected to remain the largest market for composite consumption in the rail sector, with North America second. The Asia-Pacific region is likely to witness high growth, the report says, due to an anticipated increase in high-speed train production and demand for mass transport.
Major drivers for this expansion include a greater need for lightweight materials as well as the rapid development of high-speed trains. More green technology products and high-performance composites for interiors and exteriors are also expected to fuel growth globally. The report forecasts that the interior segment will show above-average growth during the period 2016-2021, and remain the largest market by volume. A rising need for high-performance, fire-retardant materials with improved aesthetic properties are the major drivers that will spur expansion in this segment.
Today’s rail industry is seeking lighter trains, and composites could fit the bill; the cost benefits of reducing the average weight of railway cars should insure their increased use. Lighter trains mean increased capacity, and nations both east and west will need rapid-transit systems that let more people travel to and from work. 
Train doors need innovation and should provide many opportunities. Today’s honeycomb, aluminum or steel sheets could improve on energy consumption, noise and thermal transmission, and the rail industry is urging manufacturers to use composites in new systems that open and close more quickly. Faster doors that meet safety requirements could ultimately increase line capacity. 

Trimming weight 

Ever-increasing passenger requirements keep making trains heavier. These include universal-access toilets, more tables, power sockets, air conditioning, and improved crash structures. Using composites could reduce the mass of a train’s body, doors, bogies, couplers, seats, as well as drivers’ cabs. 
Composite materials that could address rail industry needs include phenolic SMC (sheet molding compounds), modified epoxy glass prepreg that complies with the latest EN 45545 fire standards, fire-retardant foam cores, carbon/phenolic prepregs, and the latest thermoplastic materials with good fire/smoke/toxicity (FST) properties. Several lightweight core materials can provide stiffness while lowering weight better than monolithic composites. Balsa, foam, aluminum honeycombs, Nomex honeycomb and cork composites are examples. 

Lightweight aluminum honeycomb for doors, flooring, galleys and toilets are alternative solutions to more conventional plywood or metal. Longevity – particularly in wet areas – and lower refurbishment costs are its main advantages.

Composites could also help improve the rail industry’s infrastructure. The U.S. rail network, for example, has nearly 140,000 miles of track and over 100,000 bridges. The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers stated that much of the infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington, D.C.; 750,000 passenger trips per day) needs increased maintenance. The ASCE estimated that US$28 billion is needed to turn the system into what it calls good repair.
Composites can play a role in maintenance of this aging infrastructure. Gravel, or ballast, forms the bed of train tracks. Currently, inspections to determine the condition of the wood and steel buried in this ballast must be done without damaging the structure itself, or avoiding disrupting rail services, a difficult procedure. Instead of ballast, an easy-to-remove composite grating to cover the timber and steel structures could make inspections quicker and cheaper.

Costs can be further cut by replacing concrete with lightweight composites that will not corrode and need no heavy machinery. Pultruded GFRP platforms, using polyester, vinyl ester and proprietary resins, can replace damaged platforms quicker and at less expense. 
Glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) has shown an increase in use, thanks to its lifecycle cost and versatility. Yet hurdles still block broader growth.

Customers who use concrete may not be aware of the benefits of composites. Rail operators may believe that GFRP is not as strong, for example.
The biggest challenge however remains the initial cost of composites, which can be higher than traditional material. Only when customers consider the initial costs of installation - using cranes to lift concrete components for inspections, for example - do composite products become more appealing.

Money may be the deciding factor. A May 2017 poll in California revealed that a mere 12 percent of voters desired to maintain their financial commitment to the U.S.’ first high-speed rail project (Los Angeles to San Francisco), as its cost has mounted from $40 billion to $64 billion. 

The 90-minute, 240-mile Dallas-to-Houston high-speed rail line is another potential market for composites. The Texas Bullet Train, announced in 2014, was supposed to cost US$15 million. Construction was to begin this year and the line expected to be operational in 2021, but funding delays and public reticence have extended the timeline. 

 

Written by Joshua Jampol

Joshua Jampol is an American writer, journalist and broadcaster. He has over 30 years’experience on a variety of industrial and high-tech topics.

 

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